Scripture: Matthew 4:12-23
In The Fellowship of the Ring Frodo Baggins is exhorted by the wizard Gandalf to leave behind his comfortable existence in the Shire, the homeland of the Hobbits, to embark upon a journey. Frodo knows he’s been asked to take the infamous Ring of Power to Rivendell, the land of the elves, where it can be hidden from the evil Lord Sauron. Frodo is chosen because he is small, weak, and unassuming. The ring will not corrupt him because he is not powerful enough, and no one will suspect that it is in his possession. But what Frodo doesn’t know is the ultimate cost or end to the journey he embarks upon, the difficulties that lie ahead, the ultimate sacrifices that he will make, and how this journey will change him and his friends. When the fellowship determines that the ring must be destroyed right under the nose of Lord Sauron, Frodo volunteers and says to them, “I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.” How many of us would be willing to set out on a precarious journey if we didn’t know the way? When the disciples are called on a journey by Jesus in our text for today, they decide, like Frodo, that they will go even though they do not know the way. They will go even though they do not know the difficulties that lie ahead, the ultimate sacrifices they will make, or how this journey will change them.
As Jesus begins his ministry, he seeks out disciples who will help him fulfill his ministry. He walks along saying the same words that have just gotten John the Baptist arrested, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walks by the Sea of Galilee, he sees two brothers, Simon and Andrew, casting a net into the lake; they had gone fishin’. Jesus says to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Then he sees two other fisherman who are also brothers, James and John, and he calls to them as well saying, “Follow me.” All of these fishermen follow Jesus immediately, and James and John leave their father behind to deal with the nets alone. We’ve heard this story so many times that we forget how strange it is that the disciples just drop everything they are doing and follow after Jesus. We should expect the disciples to at least ask a few questions! You know, like: Where are we going? How long will we be gone? What will this require of me? What are you all about?
People who wanted to learn under rabbis went to a rabbi themselves, on their own initiative. But Jesus goes to these men and summons them to leave their everyday lives and become disciples. He disrupts what they are doing and intrudes into their plans, making claims on them that they don’t even yet understand. These are men who would in no way be prepared to follow a rabbi; they were schooled in the family business of fishing, not discipleship. They are doing important work, work that sustains them and the families they love, and still Jesus summons them from it. As theologian Eugene Boring says, “The fisherman are already at work, already doing something useful and important, and thus they are not looking for new life. Jesus’ call does not fill an obvious vacuum or meet an obvious need in their lives, but like the call of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible, it is intrusive and disruptive, calling them away from work and family.” They respond to Jesus’ call with radical obedience. They say yes to embarking on the journey with Jesus with no questions asked or bargains made. During this journey, it will be revealed to them what following Jesus is all about, and in the struggle of it all, they will learn how to sustain in this ministry.
This morning we shift back into ordinary time. We leave behind the preparations of Advent and the celebrations of Christmas and Epiphany. We move past the miraculous moment of the baptism of Jesus and get into the nitty gritty of what it means to be on a journey with Jesus. It’s now time to sit and dig deeper into what it means that God has come in the flesh and is walking among us. It’s time to get beyond shallow clichés of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We need ordinary time to learn how to sustain ourselves in the hard work of following Jesus in the daily struggles of our lives. We need to truly grasp what it means to be a disciple so that we can move beyond a Christianity that can be summed up with a bumper sticker or with 140 characters. Some things are too important and too complex to address in a tweet or on the back of a car. When you can make Christianity into a slogan that can be mass-produced and is easily digested by the majority of the population, you’ve probably gotten it all wrong. The radical obedience required to follow Jesus just does not translate into a cute bumper sticker, at least not a bumper sticker that anyone would buy.
The first clue that Simon, Andrew, James, and John get, into what kind of journey they are going on and what Jesus is about, is what Jesus does immediately after calling these first four disciples. He goes throughout Galilee, teaching and preaching the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. This journey is one that not only announces the kingdom but actualizes it. We focus so much on the fact that Jesus came to die that we often forget that he first came to live! He announced the kingdom, invited everyone into it – even the Gentiles, and brought the kingdom into their midst. He is God’s saving presence that heals. This journey is one that brings light to those who sit in darkness, to those oppressed by the empire. It is a journey that aligns the followers of Jesus with those who are poor and sick and in need of good news. It is a journey that demands that the disciples join on the side of the poor, even though it will eventually put them in conflict with those in power. It’s a journey that leads them to bring people along, to fish for people, they don’t expect.
Does our journey as disciples sound anything like the journey those original disciples went on? Has our journey of discipleship led us to bring light to people in darkness, to those oppressed by the empire? Does following Jesus for us mean that we are aligned with the poor and the sick and that we are bearers of good news for them? Does being a disciple for us mean we are in conflict with those in power and loving and including people we might not have expected to love and include? Do we like to listen to the teachings of Jesus but stop short of applying them to our lives, of jumping out of our fishing boats to follow him? Are we really disciples? Or do we just admire Jesus? Do we follow him or do we just appreciate his ideas?
Clarence Jordan is the founder of the Koinonia Community, an interracial farm in Georgia. In the early 1950’s, Clarence asked his brother, Robert Jordan, who would later be a state senator and a justice on the Georgia Supreme Court, to represent Koinonia Farm legally. This is how their conversation went:
“Clarence, I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. Why, if I represented you. I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.”
“We might lose everything too, Bob.”
“It’s different for you.”
“Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined the church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ What did you say?”
“I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point.”
“Could that point by any chance be – the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”
“Then I don’t believe you’re a disciple. You are an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer not a disciple.”
“Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church would we?”
“The question,” Clarence said, “is, ‘Do you have a church?’”
The words that Clarence speaks to his brother Robert hit me right in the gut. I’m sure they hit Robert right in the gut, too. But Clarence knew what was at stake. He understood that following Jesus meant siding with those on the margins, even if it meant siding against your own brother. He knew he had a responsibility to all of his brothers and sisters in Christ, not just his biological brother.
All too often we are admirers instead of followers of Jesus. The first step in moving beyond bumper sticker Christianity, beyond shallow versions of our faith is to make a decision: will we be admirers of Jesus or followers of Jesus? Will we talk about Jesus or will we live like Jesus? Jesus requires the same radical obedience from us that he required of his first disciples. He calls out to us beckoning us to follow him on a journey where we might not fully know the way, a journey that will entail difficulties and challenges we cannot foresee, a journey that will change us, a journey that will turn our relationships upside down. A pastor who had just baptized a teenage girl said these words to her after bringing her up out of the waters, in a voice loud enough to be heard by her parents and the entire congregation: “Sister, by this act of baptism, we welcome you to a journey that will take your whole life. This is isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of God’s experiment with your life. What God will make of you, we know not. Where God will take you, surprise you, we cannot say. This we do know and this we say – God is with you.” We don’t fully know where God will take us on our journey of following Jesus, but we can know that God is with us, and we can be certain that the journey will be consistent with the kingdom values that Jesus lived by.
When Jesus calls us, he doesn’t call us to a belief system; he invites us into a way of life; he invites us on a journey toward the kingdom. Theologian Anna Case-Winters says, “[Jesus] doesn’t call [disciples] to worship him occasionally or join a cult or believe certain things. He calls them to walk in the way that he is walking as he proclaims and makes manifest the reign of heaven.” When Jesus says, “Follow me,” he invites us to walk in his way, to join him on a journey that might cost us everything but will help us to truly live an abundant life. Following Jesus is about bringing the kingdom of heaven near. Following Jesus is about bringing light to the darkness. Following Jesus is about doing what Jesus asks us to do, about being who Jesus wants us to be. Following Jesus is about proclaiming the good news of the kingdom with our lives. Some of the decisions we are faced with we might not wish were our decisions to make. As Frodo reflected upon the important and dangerous journey to which he was called, he told his mentor Gandalf, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf responded to him saying, “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” We live in a time where what many self-proclaimed disciples of Jesus know about following in the way of the kingdom can be summed up on a bumper sticker. The darkness is thick. Many sit in the shadow of death. It is easy in American culture to talk the talk about Jesus, but it is as hard as ever to walk the walk, to actually follow in the way of Jesus. What will we do with the time that has been given to us? How will we respond to Jesus’ call to follow him on a journey where we do not know the way? Will we let Jesus teach us how to fish for people, how to announce good news in the lives of the sick, the poor, the marginalized? Will we follow Jesus or will we stay in the boat and admire him?